Myanmar's beaming welcome

By Tim Roxborogh

After decades of self-isolation, this secret country opens up, writes Tim Roxborogh.

Inle Lake's shoreline is hard to define, meaning everything is built in relation to the water.
Inle Lake's shoreline is hard to define, meaning everything is built in relation to the water.

Zipping around on a wooden long-tail boat on Inle Lake, one of Asia's prettiest lakes, it seemed a shame we were about to smash into some dear conical-hat-wearing ladies, undoubtedly sinking their boat.

Only the high-speed collision wasn't accidental and it turns out these narrow boats (which can carry half a dozen westerners single file, probably 40-plus locals) are pretty adept at stopping quickly and sidling up to each other without capsizing.

This is particularly true when the boat you're colliding with is decked out with trinkets for you to buy and the ladies on board just happen to be relatives of the captain of your boat.

So the high-speed long-tail-boat collision turned into the fun chatter of bartering for goods you don't really want as you wait for your boat to slide its way through the dozens of others crammed against the shoreline of a fully-fledged, floating market.

To get to this final phase of my 15-day Myanmar Intrepid adventure I'd seen the leafy pandemonium of the fast-developing (and very likeable) Yangon (formerly Rangoon), caught an overnight boat on the Ayerwaddy (Irrawaddy) River upcountry to the historic sites of Mandalay (such as the world's longest teak bridge, the U Bein Bridge), trekked through highland villages near Kalaw transformed by the UN Development Programme and let a horse and cart do the hard work in the famous Bagan.

But it was this last stop that took me to a place where the balance between adventure, natural beauty and shameless fun reached its peak.

Inle Lake may be more subtle in charms than the temple-dotted plain of Bagan - the undisputed jewel in the Myanmar tourist crown - though it's a close, close runner-up.

Lakes are hardly unique, so why spend your tourist dollars on getting to Inle Lake in Myanmar? For a start, no one really knows how big Inle Lake is because the shoreline is so hard to define. As a result, everything is built in relation to the water.

Aside from the floating markets, you can happily get lost amid floating villages, floating resorts (including world-class five-star resorts), floating gardens, floating temples and quite gorgeous floating silver, lacquer-ware, textile and tobacco cottage industries.

Floating gardens and villages are dotted around Inle Lake.
Floating gardens and villages are dotted around Inle Lake.

The postcard-perfect tourist photos of Inle Lake traditionally show fishermen working with their cage-nets in much the same fashion as they did 10 or 100 years ago. Indeed, separated from the claustrophobia of the floating markets, the serenity of a still lake that's framed by mountains with a hazy tropical sun silhouetting these countless fishing boats is very much a part of why you explore countries like this.

But so, too, is the discovery of something you feel is all your own.

I'd gone walking by myself away from Nyaung Shwe's (Inle Lake's main town with arguably Myanmar's best backpacker scene beside good riverside restaurants) frenetic central streets and found a neat family-run establishment called the Thanakha Garden.

Not "neat" as in a half-hearted 80s compliment, but in the true sense of the word. A shortish distance from what is currently Nyaung Shwe's commercial heart and what will probably soon be a fairly upmarket spot, Thanakha Garden found me thirsty and hungry after a major exploration of the lesser-known part of town.

It's run by two sisters who'd trained in hospitality in Thailand. They could've stayed there and made more money but decided to move back home and buy the property next to their parents' house and turn it into a restaurant.

If the food hadn't been incredible, I guess the decor's merits (beautiful in a careful, uncluttered way) wouldn't have mattered, but it's fair to say I didn't know fried rice could be that good. Add to that the free peanuts while I waited, the best watermelon ice-shake in Myanmar and the also-free post-meal papaya. There might've been a Coke in there too, and all for about $3. I think I tipped a further $3 and still felt cheap.

Such was the food (and the service) that later that night I returned with some of my travelling buddies for dessert and drinks and we all had the feeling of being humbled by the sisters' dedication and the sacrifice they'd made for their parents and wider family.

As they wait on their quiet side street for the tourists who are about to flood into their country for the first time in decades, theirs is a story echoed all over Myanmar.

In a country full of corruption, where money still tends to stay with the wealthiest people, I felt both sad and hopeful.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Intrepid Travel's Best of Burma (Myanmar's former name) tour departs on selected dates throughout 2014.

Details: See Student Flights or phone 0800 255 995.

Tim Roxborogh travelled through Myanmar courtesy of Intrepid Travel and Flight Centre.

- NZ Herald

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